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George Washington Carver was an agricultural scientist well-known today as the inventor of hundreds of food products.

He primarily developed products using peanuts, sweet potatoes, and soybeans. Many people think that George Washington Carver was the inventor of peanut butter, but this is one peanut product that Carver didn’t invent. (Marcellus Gilmore Edson, a Canadian, created the first peanut paste.)

Today, Carver is remembered for his inspirational life and for revolutionizing the agricultural landscape of the South during his lifetime.

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Early life

George Carver – who didn’t add the ‘Washington’ to his name until later in life – was born into slavery on a farm near Diamond in Missouri in 1864. His mother had been bought nine years earlier by the white farm owner, Moses Carver. Carver was supposedly against slavery but needed help with his farm, so he purchased 13-year-old Mary. Very little is known about George Carver’s father, although he’s thought to have died in an accident before his birth.

When George was a very young boy, he was kidnapped from Moses Carver’s farm alongside his mother and sister by slave raiders. They were resold in Kentucky and, at some point, separated. Moses Carver sent someone out to retrieve the family, but they only found George. George was repurchased and returned to Moses Carver’s farm in Missouri.

Once he returned home, George was raised by Moses Carver and his wife, Susan Carver, alongside his brother, James. Slavery was completely abolished in the US by 1865, making George a free child. Moses and Susan Carver taught George and James how to read and write. George was often unwell as a child, which meant he didn’t have the strength to work in the fields with Moses as his brother did. Instead, Susan showed him how to cook, garden, and mix herbal remedies.

This marked the beginning of his interest in botany and agriculture. He started to experiment with natural pesticides and fungicides from a very young age, and local farmers nicknamed him ‘the plant doctor’ because of his ability to assess and improve the health of their gardens and fields.

Getting an education

By age 11, George Carver left the farm to attend a school for black children in Neosho, a nearby town. A childless couple, Andrew and Mariah Watkins, took him in in exchange for his carrying out some household chores. Mariah Watkins was a qualified midwife and nurse, which further deepened George’s interest in medicine.

Not satisfied with the education level offered by the school in Neosho, Carver left the town around two years later, joining many other Blacks in moving to Kansas. He moved towns a lot during this period as he gained his education while making ends meet by selling the domestic skills he’d learned from Susan Carver and Mariah Watkins.

In 1880, George Carver graduated from Minneapolis High School and applied to Highland College in Kansas, which still exists today as Highland Community College. Initially accepted, his application was later turned down when the college administration learned that Carver was black.

However, in the late 1880s, George Carver instead enrolled in Simpson College in Iowa. Simpson College was a Methodist school that didn’t discriminate based on race. He began studying art and piano to earn a teaching degree. Still, he later enrolled at the Iowa State Agricultural School to study botany under the encouragement of one of his professors, Etta Budd.

Working at the Tuskegee Institute

In 1894, George Carver earned a bachelor of science degree and became the first African American to do so. He researched fungal infections in soybean plants for his undergraduate degree before working with famous mycologist L.H. Pammel as a graduate student.

He graduated with a Master of Agriculture degree in 1896, after which he received several offers for work, including one from Booker T. Washington of the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, today known as Tuskegee University. Carver’s work with Booker T. Washington would later inspire him to add ‘Washington’ to his name.

He left Iowa for Alabama in the fall of 1896 to become director of a new department of agriculture at the Tuskegee Institute. The institute’s philosophy centered on improving African Americans’ lives through education and upskilling rather than political movements. During his time at Tuskegee, Carver focused on conducting research that could help African American farmers to improve their economic situation.

This involved conducting research projects on soil management and crop production and exploring how these disciplines could help farmers in the South.

Peanuts, sweet potatoes, and soybeans

Carver found as a result of his studies that soil in the Deep South was badly damaged by decades of single-crop cultivation. Cotton had been intensively farmed for many years across the South, leaving most fields exhausted of nutrients and vulnerable to erosion.

Carver encouraged farmers across the South to plant peanuts and soybeans in their fields to combat the effects of intensive cotton cultivation. These legumes could restore nitrogen to the soil while offering a healthy source of protein to poorer people in the South. He also found that the soil across Alabama was well-suited to growing sweet potatoes.

However, when farmers across the Deep South took his advice and moved into peanuts, soybeans, and sweet potatoes, they found very little demand for these crops after harvest. Many people weren’t used to eating or cooking these foods, or they didn’t know how to prepare them in an appetizing way. This is when Carver set about creating new products and recipes based on peanuts, soybeans, and sweet potatoes. He conducted laboratory research to find out how to turn these food products into hundreds of useful ingredients and household items. He developed over 300 derivative products from peanuts alone, including:

  • Milk
  • Flour
  • Ink
  • Plastics
  • Soap
  • Linoleum
  • Medicinal oils

He developed 118 products from sweet potatoes, including flour, molasses, ink, and postage stamp glue. These products paved the way for peanuts and sweet potatoes to become commercially viable crops that would hugely impact agriculture in the South.

Carver came to be known as ‘the Peanut Man’ for his work on peanuts, and the impact of his work on the crop can’t be understated. When Carver joined the Tuskegee Institute in 1896, the peanut was not even recognized as a crop in the US. Over the next few decades, it became one of the country’s six biggest crops and the second biggest cash crop in the US by 1940.

As well as improving the lives of farmers across the South by enabling them to cultivate exhausted land, Carver was responsible for breaking the region’s reliance on cotton and boosting the agricultural power of the South once again.

Later life

Carver became a minor celebrity across the South in his later life, well-known for his research into peanuts and his role in Southern agriculture. During the last two decades of his life, he spent some time traveling across the South promoting his farming techniques, and he even traveled to India to discuss nutrition with Gandhi. Throughout his life, he continued striving to help poor, working people worldwide.

Between 1898 and 1943, he released 44 public information bulletins covering topics as wide-ranging as cultivation tips for farmers, science, and recipes for housewives. These bulletins were designed to help people across the South take advantage of the now-plentiful peanuts and sweet potatoes grown in the area by using them in herbal concoctions and recipes.

Carver even dabbled in medicine when, in the mid-1930s, America was hit hard by the Polio virus. He developed a peanut oil that reported positive results when applied with a massage. In retrospect, those patients are likely given peanut oil massages probably recovered more than those who weren’t because of the additional care they received. Still, Carver’s interest in Polio shows how versatile his experiments were.

In 1940, Carver donated his life savings to establish the Carver Research Foundation at the Tuskegee Institute to continue research in agriculture. Three years later, he died at the age of 78 on January 5th, 1943, at the Tuskegee Institute after a fall down the stairs at his home. He was buried at the Institute next to Booker T. Washington.

The legacy of George Washington Carver

Soon after his death, Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered a monument in honor of Carver. The George Washington Carver Monument still stands today in his hometown of Diamond, Missouri. Carver was also inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame after his death, demonstrating his inventions and research impact on the American economy and industry.

For much of his life, Carver came to be a symbol of the intellectual aspirations of African Americans. He was one of the leading scientists and innovators of his time and one of the only African American scientists to play a significant role in transforming many people’s lives across the country.

Rather than participating in the political campaigns that divided the country at this point, George Washington Carver spent his life trying to make life better for people across the US, impoverished, African American families in the South. His research directly transformed the lives of many working-class families and changed the course of agriculture in the US permanently. At a time when agriculture was by far the most common occupation in America, Carver singlehandedly advanced research into sustainable farming methods and crop rotation and invested in national agricultural training and education to ensure that even the poorest sharecroppers could benefit from his insights.

Today, children across the US learn about George Washington Carver in school, and he’s remembered as a scientist, an innovator, and a humanitarian. Carver’s work no doubt massively changed the trajectory of farming in the South, and his tireless efforts to improve the lives of Black sharecroppers will never be forgotten.